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Feds will consider placing monarch butterfly on endangered list

A monarch, collected by Tom Uecker of Duluth, finds a resting place on 8-year-old Thomas Leight's finger at Hill Fest in Duluth in August 2014. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it will consider placing the beleaguered monarch butterfly under the federal protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The announcement kicks off a yearlong review by the agency to determine if the monarch is in need of protection as endangered or threatened.

Public comments on the idea of listing the butterfly will be accepted for 60 days.

“The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save North America’s monarchs, so I’m really happy that these amazing butterflies are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement.

As reported in the News Tribune in August, the Center for Biological Diversity; Center for Food Safety; Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation; and Lincoln Brower, a research biologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, instigated the effort to list the butterfly after watching the monarch population plummet 90 percent in the past 20 years.

Monarch enthusiasts say increasing use of pesticides and, especially, destruction of key milkweed habitat have become major threats to the iconic orange and black butterfly. They estimate that in the past 20 years, monarchs have lost about 165 million acres of habitat, an area about the size of Texas.

Female monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, a native wildflower found across the Northland and much of the Midwest.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the monarch butterfly's dramatic decline is being driven by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born. The use of specific herbicides that kill milkweed in corn and soybean fields has been a particular problem. Milkweed now is nearly nonexistent in areas of heavy corn and soybean production, the group notes.

Observers say monarchs also are threatened by global climate change. Some scientists have predicted that the monarch's entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the United States could become unsuitable because of changing temperatures and increased risk of drought, heat waves and severe storms.

Monarch butterflies are known for their multigenerational migration each year from Mexico to the Northland and back. In winter, most monarchs from east of the Rockies converge in the mountains of central Mexico, where they form tight clusters on just a few acres of trees.

The population has declined from a recorded high of about 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to only 35 million butterflies in 2013, the lowest number on record.

Scientists say monarchs need a very large population to be resilient to threats from severe weather and predation. Nearly half of the overwintering population in Mexico can be eaten by birds and other predators during the course of a winter. One Mexican storm in 2002 killed an estimated 500 million monarchs, far more than the estimated 35 million that currently exist.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Public comments on the prospect of listing monarchs will be accepted through March 2. To view the notice and submit information starting Wednesday, visit regulations.gov and search for docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056.

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